Friday, October 30, 2020

Friday Fright Night Five--Last Dance for Ginger? The Dancing Detective (1946), by William Irish (Cornell Woolrich)

Friday Fright Night is upon you!  Happy Hallowe'en!

My Reader's Block

Sweet Freedom

Sweet Freedom (some more)

Clothes in Books

A Reading Life

And here's my post for the occasion:

The Dancing Detective (1946), by William Irish, aka Cornell Woolrich


The Dancing Detective (published as Dime a Dance, Black Mask, 1938)

Two Fellows in a Furnished Room (published as He Looked Like Murder, Detective Fiction Weekly, 1941)

The Light in the Window (Mystery Book Magazine, 1946)

Silent as the Grave (Mystery Book Magazine, 1945)

The Detective's Dilemma (Detective Fiction Weekly, 1940)

Fur Jacket (published as What the Well-Dressed Corpse Will Wear, Dime Detective, 1944)

Leg Man (Dime Detective, 1943)

The Fingernail (published as The Customer's Always Right, Detective Tales, 1941)


The Dancing Detective was the third volume of short fiction by William Irish (aka Cornell Woolrich) published, after I Wouldn't Be in Your Shoes (1943) and After-Dinner Story (1944).  As Irish, Cornell Woolrich had also published the novels Phantom Lady (1942) and Deadline at Dawn (1944), so he was on something of a roll with this pen name, as he was with his own, under which he was then publishing his famous "Black" series of crime novels (e.g., The Bride Wore Black, Black Alibi, etc.).   

still of Joan Crawford from her film
The Taxi Dancer (1927)
about a young southern woman
who moves to the big city

The title story of The Dancing Detective is the only out-and-out "frightener" in the bunch: a modern-day Jack-the-Ripper fable.  It's yet another Woolrich tale about a an attractive young taxi dancer--aka a young woman employed at a dance hall as a paid dance partner.  (The customer paid a dime a dance for the privilege, of which the woman received a small percentage, the rest going to the house.) 

How many stories did Woolrich write about these characters?  But he did it so well.  I'm always reminded when he does of Horace McCoy's bleak 1935 dance marathon novel, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?  Woolrich's young taxi dancers always seem so hard-bitten and hopeless despite their youth, blighted as they are by the urban anomie which Woolrich so powerfully portrays.

Here the dime a dance girl, a redhead named Ginger Allen (not Ginger Grant), stumbles into the deadly path of a serial murderer who, it seems, follows taxi dancers to their apartments, strangles them, and then dances with their dead corpses to the tune of "Poor Butterfly" (a popular song about the doomed title character in Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly; see below).  He repeatedly stabs them all the while.  It's like a murderous version of Tom Petty's perverse 1993 music video, Mary Jane's Last Dance.

Now, why hasn't this been adapted into a modern day horror film?  It's certainly gruesome enough, if too gruesome to have been filmed back around the time it was originally published.  It's a terrific story, full of pungent taxi dancer slang, with some good subsidiary characters (like Mom Henderson, the ladies bathroom attendant who avidly gorges herself on true crime fiction).  It's marred only by its rather too pat ending, in my view.  Also Dime a Dance is the better title!

My favorite story in the collection, however, is the second one, Two Fellows in a Furnished Room.  This one is about Stewart "Red" Carr (Perhaps Red knows Ginger from the last story?), an earnest young fellow given to taking improving night school classes who comes to suspect, to his horror, that Dixon, his apartment mate and good pal, has brutally murdered his, Dixon's, pretty girlfriend, Estelle, who on the night of her death "Red" had briefly met for the first time, coming up the apartment stairs.  There is plenty of suspense here, but also genuine cluing and detection, and the ending is not as pat as in the previous story, having that authentic Woolrich frisson.  Is it a coincidence that when you put the two fellows' surnames together you get "Dixon Carr"?  I think not!

I understand a film version of this story, The Guilty (1947) was made, although not altogether successfully.  

I also liked The Detective's Dilemma, which is essentially a true puzzle problem story with a different, more glamorous milieu than one usually finds in Woolrich.  It's about an exiled European prince who comes to the police to tell them his wife is going to murder him and that he wants them to charge her with murder after she inevitably succeeds.  He's a hemophiliac, you see, and it's so easy in such cases for a malevolent individual to arrange a fatal accident....

When the prince does indeed die, the detective's dilemma is to determine whether his death was really an accident or murder.  This was a "fun" mystery problem story--at least as much as Woolrich can be fun--with the detective making his rationally deduced conclusion on the final page.  

I also have to hand it to the final tale in the collection, The Fingernail, for being one grisly little potboiler.  (At ten pages it's by far the shortest story in the collection.)  I won't say more, except that for its morbid humor it recalls certain classics of British crime fiction.

The other stories didn't do so much for me, sadly, even The Light in the Window, which starts off as a superbly written murder mood piece, but succumbs to the over obvious ironic twist, which you can see coming  a mile away.  Probably some people will like it anyway, though.  To be sure, there is definitely some prime Woolrich in this collection, and prime Woolrich is as good as crime gets.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Friday Fright Night Four: Too Terrifying for Television? Alfred Hitchcock Presents Stories They Wouldn't Let Me Do on TV (1957)

Here's are this week's frightabulous Friday links!

Clothes in Books

Cross Examining Crime

My Reader's Block

Sweet Freedom

Pretty Sinister

And here's my FEARSOME contribution!

....eerie tales of the supernatural make up a part of the book, but the chief staple is that ever popular crime--murder.   

However, you will look in vain for the story of an underworld killing--homicide as practiced by hoodlums.  I have nothing against gangsters, you understand.  Some very delightful murders have been committed by professional criminals.  By and large, however, the more interesting work in the field is done by amateurs.  Highly gifted amateurs, but still amateurs.  They are people who perform their work with dignity, good taste and originality, leavened with a sense of the grotesques. 

Furthermore, they do not bore you afterward by telling you how they got the way they are.  Here is polite and wholesome mayhem as practiced by civilized people and I think it makes good reading.   

--preface to Alfred Hitchcock Presents Stories They Wouldn't Let Me Do on TV (1957)

Alfred Hitchcock (or more accurately someone else under his name) edited a half-dozen crime and horror story anthologies in the 1940s, but these "Alfred Hitchcock" anthologies really came into their own only in 1957, when the book series was relaunched, due to the popularity of the superb television anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents [AHP], which ran from 1955 to 1965 (the last three years under the title The Alfred Hitchcock Hour) and was famously introduced to the mirthfully macabre strains of Charles Gounod's Funeral March of a Marionette

The revamped book series would run for over three decades until 1989, outlasting the series and even Hitch himself (by nearly a decade).  They used to be familiar to me on bookstalls back in the 1970s, along with Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, launched in 1956 and still around today.  You could say that Hitch had a brand, and he made the most of it.

The first of these relaunched book anthologies was Alfred Hitchcock Presents Stories They Wouldn't Let Me Do on TV.  Ostensibly these were stories that were "too shocking, macabre or grotesque" for television in the Fifties.  But some of them did make it on to television, after all--some of them even presented by Hitch himself.

It's a huge anthology of twenty-five stories (one a novella), which, when reprinted by English paperback publisher Pan in 1960 in their "Giant" series, ran to nearly four hundred pages.  About half of the tales are what I would call suspense/horror chestnuts.  How many of these do you know? 

The lead off story, Being a Murderer Myself, (1948) by Arthur Williams, is about a chicken farmer in South Africa who murders a tiresome ex-girlfriend. 

The police follow the woman's tail--I mean her trail--to the narrator's farm, but then are stymied because they simply can't find the woman's body.  What happened to her?  Only the narrator knows....

Two years after the publication of Stories they Wouldn't Let Me Do on TV, an adaptation of Being a Murder Myself aired on AHP, under the title "Arthur." 

It was directed by Hitchcock himself and starred Oscar-nominated Angry Young Man actor Laurence Harvey and film Scream Queen Hazel Court and co-starred Patrick Macnee, I recollect, in a familiar pre-Avengers role as a police inspector.  It's one of the classic Hitchcock television episodes, buoyed by Hitch's creative direction, a wicked script (an improvement on the story) and Laurence Harvey's brilliantly sardonic performance.  If ever there was a man who charmed like the Devil himself, it was Laurence Harvey.

Laurence Harvey as Arthur putting an end
to a domestic problem

The actual author of the story was Peter Barry Way (1917-1969), a South African himself, who likely based his account on a real life murder case from the Twenties in England.  Although, to be sure, "Arthur" came up with a much better way of getting rid of the body....

Next is Lunkundoo (1927) by Edward Lucas White, one of the classic African curse stories.  What a source of imaginative horror was Africa for writers of the colonial era! 

Certainly this one was too grotesque for television as it is written, though it's a bit derivative of a superb, and more subtle, HG Wells story, Pollock and the Porroh Man (1895), which had been previously anthologized by "Hitchcock."

From here, I'm going to highlight the more successful stories in the collection, in my view.  "The Perfectionist" (1946) is oddly one of only two stories by women in the collection, the one here being Margaret St. Clair.  It's about a scapegrace nephew (a familiar character from fiction of this era), who comes to live with and do odd jobs for his well-off Aunt Muriel, a nice older lady who has developed a nice new hobby: still life art.  This is a clever tale, reminiscent of Roald Dahl, though like several in the collection you can deduce ahead of time where it's going.

The Price of a Head (1919) by John Russell is another warning to white men about the dangers of tropical locales, this time the Solomon Islands.  It's a good story but it was spoiled for me because I read a cribbed version of it years ago in the gruesome Tales from the Crypt comic book.

Lake Patzcuaro, Mexico, where Love Comes to Miss Lucy climaxes

Next is Love Comes to Miss Lucy (1947) by Q. Patrick, or more accurately Hugh Wheeler, who will be quite familiar to readers of this blog.  Hugh Wheeler and his partner Richard Webb spent the winter of 1946-47 in Mexico, and this superb short story was one of the fictional fruits of that stay.  In a way it's another peril in sunny climes tale, although it has emotional resonance to go along with its shock value, and in my view it thereby cuts deeper than older tales like Lunkundoo and The Price of a Head.  Also the protagonist is a woman, not a man.

In the story Miss Lucy Bram is touring Mexico with two other proper middle-aged Quaker ladies from Philadelphia (people with whom Wheeler and Webb were quite familiar, having lived in Philadelphia), when she shockingly (to herself) becomes enamored with her young Mexican tour guide, Mario.  This a very cleverly constructed story with an ending which is both jolting and moving.  Probably the best thing Wheeler and Webb ever did in the way of the short crime story.

Lucy was never aired on AHP, but belying the title of the anthology, it aired six years before the book was published as part of the television anthology series Danger, in an adaptation directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Maria Riva, the only child of Marlena Dietrich, who is still around at age 96.  Anyone ever seen Danger?  I'd love to see this episode.

Sredni Vashtar (1912) is one of the classics by the great satirical short story writer Saki (HH Munro), and another one of his tales about a child pitted against the cruel adult world; if you haven't read it, read it!  It is highly cathartic if you had an unhappy childhood.

Love Lies Bleeding (1950) by English crime writer Philip Macdonald is a much-praised and awarded short crime story with an ending that I suppose must have been a shocker in its day, but to me has lost some of its impact.  Still, it's one you often see mentioned.  Once you read it, you'll know why it would have presented problems for Fifties television.

Casting the Runes (1911) by the great English Edwardian supernatural writer MR James is here as well, probably on account of the fact that the story had been filmed as Night of the Demon the same year in which the anthology was published.  I was exposed to MR James' horrors in the 1990s through a volume of his selected stories introduced by the subject of last's week entry, Ruth Rendell, who was a great admirer of MR James (as well as PD of course); and I was impressed indeed with his work. 

Until I read MR James, I had only known American horror writers like HP Lovecraft, who for me was always a tad much.  Rereading Runes two decades or more later it feels rather like a detective story, albeit one with major supernatural underpinnings! There is, however, a splendid horrific bit which has always stuck with me, though it's told only at second-hand, about the villain of the piece terrorizing a group of children with a diabolic slide show.  Ever so malevolent, it was ripped off to good effect in the first of the two-part It films.

I simply adore the film version of the story, Night of the Demon, possibly my favorite horror film of all time.  It was directed by the great Jacques Tourneur (of Cat People fame) with an Oscar-worthy supporting performance by Niall MacGinnis as the antagonist.  (Dana Andrews and Peggy Cummins head the cast.)  And the interesting thing is that, despite its being a huge expansion of the story, Demon is quite faithful to James' concept and even what details there are in the story. 

By the by, as someone with experience in the academic world, I have always loved the idea of a man summoning a demon to avenge himself on the person who blackballed his proposed journal article.  But naturally!

It's certainly one way to deal with rejection!

The Voice in the Night (1907) by William Hope Hodgson and How Love Came to Professor Guildea (1900) by Robert S. Hichens are Edwardian/Victorian chestnuts of horror, the first about the fate which befalls a couple shipwrecked on an uncharted and deserted (?) isle and the second about the horrible thing which befalls a scientist who declares affection an abomination to himself.  The former was adapted as the freaky Japanese film Mantango in 1963.

The Moment of Decision (1955), about the run-in between a know-it-all man and his retired magician neighbor, is by the great American crime writer Stanley Ellin.  Arguably the story is his nod to the classic tale "The Lady or the Tiger," beloved of middle school English classes.

Nunc Dimittis (1953) by Roald Dahl is one of his delightfully nasty little tales about humanity, in which a priggish old bachelor gets his highly vindictive revenge on a woman he believes insulted him--but where does that get him?

Richard Connell's The Most Dangerous Game (1924) is the one about the great white hunter who hunts humans, the source for the classic 1932 film of the same title.  Classic notion, but the film is better!

Rockstown Castle, Ireland

The Lady on the Grey (1951) is by the English author John Collier, one of the great writers of mid-century weird tales.  At least four of his stories were adapted as AHP episodes--though not The Lady on the Grey, which is brilliant little episode drawing on Irish folklore (and yet older).

The Waxwork (1931) by AM Burrage made it to AHP in 1959.  It's the classic tale of the man who spends the night in the popular Murderers' Den of a wax museum. 

What happens?  Nothing good you can be sure!

Couching at the Door (1942) is a supernatural story by DK Broster, aka Dorothy Kathleen Broster, the only other woman author in this collection.  It tells of the comeuppance of Decadent poet Augustine Marchant.  It's very convincingly fin de siecle, hard to believe it was published in 1942.

Three of the last ones are The October Game (1948) by Ray BradburyWater's Edge (1956) by Robert Bloch and The Jokester (1952) by Robert Arthur.  Despite being exceedingly nasty and gruesome in the events it details, to be sure, the Halloween-set Bradbury story somehow didn't scare me, perhaps because I could see it coming from a long way off.  Bradbury always seems so full of humanity and human understanding to me too, he's like the Charlotte Armstrong of horror. 

Ann Sothern (!) and John Cassavettes in
Water's Edge

The story by Robert Arthur, an important person in the Alfred Hitchcock publishing empire, as he wrote some of the Three Investigators books and edited Alfred Hitchcock anthologies, was also too predicable to me.  If I described the plot in a line or two, you could tell me the ending I'm sure. 

However, Bloch's Water's Edge was terrific, though somewhat reminiscent of a similarly terrific Cornell Woolrich story, The Living Lie Down with the Dead (1936).  (See my blog post on Cornell Woolrich short fiction here.)  

I hadn't read Water's Edge before, although it was discussed seven years ago by John Norris at his blog.  (You should read the story before reading John's blog post, on account of spoilers.)  

Water's Edge appeared originally in Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine and it's definitely hard-boiled, a superbly hateful slice of noir about an ex-con who will do anything to get his hands on some hidden stolen money--even seduce and plot the murder of his former cellmate's wife!

Water's Edge made it to AHP in the series' last season in 1964, where it was one of the highlights of the season, along with Ethel Lina White's fantastically eerie An Unlocked Window.  Even then they had to tone down the ending for television.  Just what you'd expect from the author of Psycho.  Read it for yourself and see--and then have yourself some sweet dreams!

Friday, October 16, 2020

Friday Fright Night 3--Death Card: The Lake of Darkness (1980), by Ruth Rendell

Week three of Friday Fright Night.  How fright flies!  You have the heebie-jeebies yet?  We'll see about that.  Here are your creepy links:

Cross Examining Crime

A Reading Life

Sweet Freedom

Pretty Sinister (last week)

Pretty Sinister (this week)

And here is my contribution this week. Read on, ye stout of heart!

Nero is an angler in the lake of darkness.... 

--King Lear (William Shakespeare)          

Scorpio is metaphysics, putrefaction and death, regeneration, passion, lust and violence, insight and profundity; inheritance, loss, occultism, astrology, borrowing and lending others' possessions.  Scorpios are magicians, astrologers, alchemists, surgeons, bondsmen, and undertakers.  The gem for Scorpio is the snakestone, the plant the cactus; eagles and wolves and scorpions are its creatures, its body part is the genitals, its weapon the Obligatory Pain, and its card on the Tarot is Death.

Finn shared his birthday, November 16, with the Emperor Tiberius.  He had been told by a soothsayer, who was a friend of his mother's whom she had met in the mental hospital, that he would live to a great age and die by violence.

Emotions, passion, jealousy, desire, even hatred, were beyond or outside his understanding.  They bored him.  He preferred magic.

--The Lake of Darkness (Ruth Rendell)


Under the zodiac I, like Ruth Rendell's Finn and the Roman emperor Tiberius, am a Scorpio, meaning my birthday falls at this time of year.  I could never quite figure out how I was meant to be a Scorpio, because my personality does not seem to accord at all with this passionate and rather fearsome celestial sign.  But that would mean astrology is hooey, and that surely can't be right, can it?  It is written in our stars, is it not?

Astrology and the role of fickle fate in our lives are major elements in Ruth Rendell's non-series crime novels, of which The Lake of Darkness (1980) was the ninth to be published.  It appeared at a time when Rendell was growing restive with her Inspector Wexford series of novels, of which ten had appeared up to this time.  After 1980, up to the year of her death in 2015, Rendell would publish fourteen more Wexfords, but nineteen Wexfordless Rendells and fourteen novels written under another pseudonym, Barbara Vine.  Over time it seems that Wexford became for Rendell more of an obligation than an enthusiasm.  

The Lake of Darkness receives much less attention than another non-series Rendell from around this time, the unpleasant tour de force A Judgment in Stone (1977), but in a crucial way, in my opinion, The Lake of Darkness was more pivotal to her development.  While Judgment is more of a social problem novel dealing, quite murderously to be sure, with the problem of illiteracy, Lake plunges us into more familiar topics in crime fiction: deep-dyed deception and madness.  What seems original about Lake to me is how Rendell brings this seemingly unconnected group of characters together with quite deadly results, like a criminous version of Thornton Wilder's 1927 bestselling mainstream novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey.  

This was a pattern which Rendell would use over and over in her non-series Rendell crime fiction, right up to her final, posthumous novel, Dark Corners (2015). but rarely did she do it better than in the compulsively readable and lean and tightly plotted Lake of Darkness, a novel of around 75,000 words (about half the length of some of her later ones).  Sometimes less is more!

The main characters in Lake, which like so many of Rendell's books is set in London, are psychopathic hit man Finn (see quotation above); twenty-eight-year-old Martin Urban, an accountant of the social genus people soon would be calling "yuppie"; Tim Sage, an stunningly attractive old college chum of Martin's (Rendell unaccountably loved that name, Martin), who works as a freelance journalist; and a lovely young woman half-prosaically named Francesca Brown.

The already well-off Martin has won 105,100 pounds in a football lottery (over a half million pounds today) and being, in contrast with the yuppie stereotype, an altogether modest and conscientious-to-a-fault fellow, he decides to give much of the money away to deserving, needful people.  This, of course, is where he gets himself into deep trouble.  

Martin is one of Rendell's early examples of the dangerously ingenuous protagonist, someone who wants to help others but is impeded by his own naivete and ingrained conservatism.  He is also, I think, the first really notable gay male in Rendell's non-series crime fiction--although Martin being the dunderhead that he is, he takes an unaccountably long time in the novel, at age twenty-eight, to realize that he might be gay.  It may be be harder for people today to buy this, but personally I, who was half Martin's age when this novel was published, can believe there were people like this in 1980.  Indeed, I think we still have them today, four decades later.  

Unlike much of Rendell's later crime fiction, Lake keeps plot firmly at the forefront and can be safely recommended, I think, to people who prefer plot-driven mysteries.  In terms of structure, the story looks back to the prestidigitation of, say, the landmark 1955 French suspense film Diabolique (based on the 1952 novel She Who Was No More), rather than forward to the meandering, portentous formlessness of much modern-day character-driven crime fiction.  The characterization in the novel is sufficient to carry the story along, in my view, although you may have trouble sympathizing with Martin because of his, well, utter cluelessness about life.  He seems a born victim.  But then look at the maddeningly dense protagonist in Francis Iles' landmark suspense novel Before the Fact (1931).

The message of Lake seems to be that acts of kindness can ironically redound on one with devastating results.  I often wonder about Rendell's politics.  She used to tell people over and over again that she was a hardcore leftist and she aligned with the Labour party in Parliament, but I always get the sense with Rendell that there was a conservative within her struggling to get out and hector people.  Later in life she repetitively denounced what she termed "political correctness" in her fiction and she he often seems to have viewed members of the white working class with outright disdain.  Black and Muslim women she adored (I'm not so sure about the men), but that seems more a matter of race and gender than class per se.  

Certainly in Lake Martin and his parents, for all their knowledge about moneymaking, seem, on account of their lucre, insulated from and oblivious to unpleasant realities.  However, one of the most irksome characters in the book is Martin's cleaner, Mr. Cochrane, who presumptuously calls Martin by his first name but flies into a fury when asked for his own, and is, in the author's words, "a ferocious racist."  Rendell's writing is at her most dryly ironic as she details how poor Martin got stuck with Mr. Cochrane:

That his cleaner was a mister and not a missus was due to the Sex Discrimination Act.  When Martin put his advertisement in the North London Post he had been obliged by law not to state that he required female help, and when Mr. Cochrane turned up similarly obliged not to reject him.  He was lucky enough to get anyone at all, as his mother pointed out.  

[Upon Mr. Conchrane's arrival Martin] wished that he was about to admit a large motherly charwoman, an old-fashioned, biddable creature, who, if she didn't exactly call him sir, might nevertheless treat him with respect and show some consideration for his wishes.  He had read about such people in books.

Another way in which this novel looks back to the past is in its seeming nostalgia for an earlier era, when good help--or any help at all--was not so hard to find.  Even, as lovers of a certain classic Agatha Christie Miss Marple detective novel from three decades earlier will appreciate, a ditzy, caricatured au pair refugee from Middle Europe named Mitzi.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Friday Fright Night 2--Gorey Night: Edward Gorey's Lost Dust Jacket Design for Margaret Erskine's Dead by Now (1954)

Well, dear readers, I see you have survived to week two of our Friday Night Frights!  (Or perhaps at this rate we should call them Saturday Shudders?)  Here are this week's spooky links.  Click them for ghastly literary insights, if you dare! 

Cross Examining Crime
Clothes in Books
Sweet Freedom
My Reader's Block
A Reading Life
Pretty Sinister (this is John Norris' piece from last week)


Although he has been dead for two decades now, author and book illustrator Edward Gorey (1925-2000) lives on!

rejected jacket design for Margaret Erskine's
mystery Dead by Now by Edward Gorey

Dubbed high camp macabre, Gorey's work is well-known within the Gothic fiction genre and surely was a major influence on such younger artistic figures as author Lemony Snicket and filmmaker Tim Burton.  Indeed, before his death at century's end Gorey had become a minor celebrity with a devoted cult following. 

Less well-known, however, are Gorey's illustrations for mystery fiction.  In the next few days I am going to look at additional examples of Gorey's works within the mystery genre, but for now I want to focus on his design for the cover of Margaret Erskine's detective novel Dead by Now (1954)--some of his best cover work in my opinion, though ironically it was never published.  It sold in a 2016 auction for over $9000.

Despite his affiliation with horror (or camp horror), Edward Gorey grew up reading not masters of shudders  like HP Lovecraft but mystery mavens like Agatha Christie.  On a 1943 scholarship application he admitted that mysteries were "my favorite form of reading" and listed specific titles he had perused by John Buchan, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Ngaio Marsh, Rex Stout, Dorothy L. Sayers, GK Chesterton and the indubitable Agatha.  Four decades later he avowed that "Agatha Christie is still my favorite author in all the world."  A few years before his death he estimated that he had read each of her books "about five times."  (See Mark Dery's excellent 2018 Gorey biography, Born to be Posthumous.)  

This revelation didn't surprise me so much, because I came to know Gorey on American television through PBS' Mystery! series, which debuted in the United States in 1980.  I used to watch this series, which was then hosted by Vincent Price (later the late Diana Rigg), with my parents in the early eighties, with the big television set on the corner of the brick fireplace and our drowsy Spitz dog Sheba curled up in a ball underneath it.  Gorey did the series' drolly spooky title sequences, which included a distressed, moaning woman in white on top of a high brick wall (see above).  Sheba, no lover of mysteries, would always prick up her ears at that part!

Doubleday's bland cover
In 1953 Gorey, then twenty-eight, moved to New York, where he had secured a job with the art department of publisher Doubleday, Doran.  That same year he submitted a design for the jacket to Margaret Erskine's detective novel Dead by Now, which was published by Doubleday, Doran's Crime Club reprint. 

It's a superb piece of work (see top pic, above left), immediately recognizable as Gorey with its black and white images of Victorian/Edwardian macabre.  Gorey in fact was ideally suited for Erskine, whose novels typically involve wealthy English families living in creepy old piles of decayed mansions.  Although Erskine published mysteries until 1977, her books often have an anachronistic feel to me, like they would be easily at home in pre-WW2 days. 

Additionally there often is, as is emphatically the case with Dead by Now, more than a touch of pitch, usually in the form of frightening spectral hauntings, or rumors of such.  Erskine herself grew up in a great haunted mansion in Devon.

Dead by Now concerns mysterious events around a private family theater, the Luxuria, constructed in neoclassical style back in the Victorian era for a retired stage actress, Rosette, by her doting husband, "a very rich gentleman by the name of Julius Cadell,"  in order to showcase Rosette's thespian talent.  Tragically, however, she expired from a fall down a theater staircase (or was she pushed?!), after which the desolated Julius hanged himself. 

Edward Gorey and friend: an illustration of the illustrator

Now, in the present day after the Second World War, the Luxuria Theatre seems to be haunted by Julius' ghostly presence, bowler-hatted with a bent neck.  Gorey's jacket beautifully captures this aspect of the story, but evidently it was too much for his employer, who opted instead for a flatter, much more utilitarian design by a Sam Fischer.  You can still see the ghost, but barely, and, honestly, from the picture you wouldn't even know that it's supposed to be a ghost (see pic above right). 

Pretty tepid, really.  Perhaps Doubleday was afraid that people might think the novel was a horror story rather than a mystery.  Apparently Gorey's jacket design was too atmospheric for its own good.

jacket design for English edition
of Dead by Now
No such doubt assailed Erskine's English publisher, Hammond, who published Dead by Now with a memorably macabre cover (see pic to left).  However, I believe that Gorey's fine handiwork survives in the content and design of the lettering of Doubleday's description of the book's plot (see pic below).  What do you think?

As for the novel, it's good Erskine.  The spectral stuff is nice if you like that kind of thing in a mystery (I do), but what I actually enjoyed most of all was the banter between Erskine's series detective, Inspector Septimus Finch, and the policemen of Grovely Wood Division, where Finch is temporarily in charge.  Finch is considered distinctly odd by the locals (the story gets round that he's a drunk who has fallen madly in love with the dead actress), and this is entertainingly portrayed by the author. 

In fact, I can't understand why Finch has been dismissed as a colorless sleuth.  To me he seems clearly to come from the Roderick Alleyn gentleman tec school, quoting poetry and everything, though he's not treated with unstinting adoration by the author.  He's just the sort of sleuth you'd expect to find on a case concerning a crook-necked ghost in a haunted theater.

the hand of Edward Gorey?

Friday, October 2, 2020

Friday Fright Night One Murder is the Devil: Mr. Splitfoot (1968), by Helen McCloy

prepare yourselves for
ghoulies and ghosties and
long-leggedy mysteries

This month some of us vintage mystery bloggers are devoting Fridays to posting about spooky mystery and horror fiction, so prepare yourself, dear readers, for some Friday night frights! 

Herewith, the links!

Clothes in Books
Cross Examining Crime
My Reader's Block

My contribution follows....

"My youngest child, Katie, said, 'Mr. Splitfoot, do as I do,' clapping her hands.  The sounds instantly followed her with the same number of raps."--testimony concerning the outbreak of spirit rapping at the Fox house in the village of Hydesville, New York

"Do as I do, Mr. Splitfoot!"--Lucinda Swayne in Helen McCloy's Mr. Splitfoot (1968)

172 years ago, in March 1848, two young sisters, Maggie and Katie Fox, aged fifteen and eleven, effectively launched the spiritualism movement (which is based on the belief in communication with the dead), when they convinced their parents and many of their neighbors in the village of Hydesville, New York that inside their parents cottage, which was reputedly haunted by the ghost of a murdered itinerant peddler, they could converse with this dead man, whom they dubbed "Mr. Splitfoot." 

Four decades later, after having become two of the most renowned spirit mediums in the world, Maggie supported by  Katie shockingly recanted their story (only to recant the recantation later), explaining that they themselves had created the raps and knocks which they had mendaciously attributed to Mr. Splitfoot.  Coupled with the Salem Witch Trials, this Hydesville spirit rapping phenomenon seems to demonstrate that there is no end to the mischief which precocious and bored young ladies can cook up.  

There is a precocious and bored young girl in Helen McCloy's penultimate Basil Willing detective novel, Mr. Splitfoot (1968), fifteen-year-old Lucinda Swayne, who plots some mischief of her known, accompanied by her teenage neighbor, a boy of Russo-Italian heritage whom Lucinda calls Vanya.  (His real name is a matter of some dispute.)  Lucinda resides at Crowe's Flight, a secluded house located deep in New York's Catskill Mountains (where the Fox family originally had lived), with her novelist father, Francis, and her stepmother, Folly, whom she despises.  

Maggie and Katie Fox

When Lucinda discovers that there is a hidden room and attic in the old house, which was originally built in 1840, she and Vanya decide they will stage some fake spirit rapping of their own to frighten the adults staying over the weekend at Crowe's Flight.  But their game backfires spectacularly when, in a scene recalling Banquo's Chair, a famous episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the rapping they had planned to stage takes place seemingly of its own volition!  Does Crowe's Flight have its own "Mr. Splitfoot"--for real?  And is it Mr. Splitfoot who is responsible when one of the houseguests dies mysteriously in the haunted room at Crowe's Flight, where three people have mysteriously died before?

Originally published in 1968, Mr. Splitfoot appeared as the great generation which produced the detective fiction of the Golden Age was itself passing from the scene, into the netherworld.  Many of these writers had died already and in another decade others would go, including titans Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr.  Furthermore, no one would argue that Christie, Carr and company were producing their best work in this period. 

In Mr. Splitfoot, however, Helen McCloy, then sixty-four, produced one of the best of her thirteen mysteries starring psychiatrist sleuth Dr. Basil Willing, who had debuted three decades earlier, at the tail end of the Golden Age, in 1938.  The novel makes use of some of the genre's hoariest tropes--the breakdown of the sleuth's car in the countryside, the country house party, the snowbound mansion, the Christmastime setting, the haunted mansion, the locked room--and triumphantly succeeds in giving them a fresh gloss.  I first read the novel over two decades ago and upon rereading it this week I found that I enjoyed it every bit as much as I did the first time round.  It's a late flowering of Golden Age ingenuity to be cherished by lovers of vintage mystery.

Dr. Willing and his wife Gisela are on their way to a skiing vacation after Christmas when their car ends up in a snow drift and Gisela fractures her ankle.  Happily, like with Brad and Janet in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, there's a light...over at the country mansion Crowe's Flight, and the couple is taken in to stay for the night.  The adults staying at Crowe's Flight on that fatal night are, aside from Francis and Folly Swayne, who are renting the house (and planning to buy), David Crowe, heir of Crowe's Flight, and his wife Serena; and publisher Bradford Alcott and his wife, Ginevra. 

David Crowe works for Bradford Alcott and Francis Swayne is one of his authors.  There is also a cook, Martha, who appears briefly and blessedly speaks without resort to the heavy dialect speech which McCoy employed in a much earlier McCloy novel I reviewed here.  Then there is Vanya's mother, Vittoria Radanine, who lives at a neighboring house.  That's pretty much the whole cast of this tightly-knit closed circle mystery, aside from a couple of investigating cops.

During the Willings' short stay at Crowe's Flight, the aforementioned ghostly rapping occurs, leading to a discussion of the house's haunted history.  It seems that there is a small bedroom at the top of the stairs, which is always kept locked, on account of three people having mysterious died there since 1870.  David Crowe tells the story, which involves the three daughters of the original builder of the house and the young man with whom they all were infatuated.  (The daughters, Clotho, Atropos and Lachesis, were named for the three Fates of Greek mythology.)  Basil Willing offers to spend the night in the room to dispel belief in deathly manifestations, but instead the four men--Basil, Francis, David and Bradford--draw lots to see who will sleep in the room.  The "winner" soon dies there--of no apparent cause!  After having rung a bell to let the men downstairs know that he was not in the room alone....

Although the door to the dead man's room was open when he died, the entrance was observable to the other men downstairs and the dust on the floor (the room had been closed for decades) was undisturbed.  So we effectively have a "locked room" situation, as Basil Willing explains, when a character tells him, "The room wasn't locked....the door was left open so we could hear the bell.  Remember?"

When I said a "locked room" I meant a room that no one but the dead man could have entered before death.  No one could have gone upstairs to the room where Crowe was without our seeing and hearing him....No one could have scuffled with Crowe without leaving some marks in the dust on the floor.  To all intents and purposes, it was a locked room even though the door stood open.

The novel's locked room situation is a nice one indeed, the mechanics of which are very fairly clued.  I don't know who else besides John Dickson Carr himself was still doing locked room mysteries in 1968, but McCloy constructed a fine addition to the canon.  The solution in the matter of culpritude also turns on a nice point of psychology.  Additionally, McCloy's novel, with its setting of the lonely old house in the brooding Catskills, is a memorable one.  The climax of the mystery has a nice twice and is satisfyingly dramatic.  The novels closes with an elucidation scene with Dr. Willing that is firmly in the classic mold.

While the adult characters are not more than sufficiently characterized, I would say, the heart of the novel lies with her appealing young people, Lucinda and Vanya.  Here in 1968, a dozen years after the appearance of the previous Basil Willing detective novel, McCloy was interested in the "generation gap" and the sweeping changes being made in Western society and she writes about them with greater assurance than not only Christie but Carr, who was actually slightly younger than she was.  You can tell that McCloy disapproves of a lot of modern fashions and permissive attitudes--in dress (Moira at Clothes in Books really needs to write about this one), in architecture, in her perennial favorite subject, psychology--but she doesn't come off as blindly reactionary either.

when a character in a mystery novel is wearing
something like this, you know it's the Sixties

Some of McCloy's asides can maunder on a bit in what is a short novel (I think it's not a great deal over 60,000 words), but McCloy had always been hipped on psychology, for example, since her first novel.  Basil Willing, after all, is a psychologist; yet all the characters, even the teenagers, like to talk about psychology, like other people talk about the weather.  In McCloy's defense they do come from an arty, intellectual milieu.  Overall, this is a model of the Thirties "manners mystery" from the Swinging Sixties, highly literate while not neglectful of the fundamentals of the puzzle.

One of the bits from the novel which I recalled after two decades was Vanya's silly mother--who we are told is an "inverted snob" from the downtrodden Thirties (Ngaio Marsh also was much concerned with inverted snobbery. i.e., prejudice against wealthy people)--announcing "We are mug people" when she offers people coffee.  Mrs. Radanine serves coffee in mugs, you see, not cups and saucers.  And, worse yet, it's instant!  I am old enough to remember people with their jars of instant coffee, dropping a few teaspoonfuls of desiccated crystals in a piping hot mug of microwaved water and thinking this was a great innovation.  It certainly saved time! 

I used to have a small jar of instant coffee myself when I was in law school.  I remember relating this bit in the book to my Mom years ago, when I was telling her she should read it.  It's little things like that which make this novel such a pleasure to read, though I suppose S. S. Van Dine would have condemned it as "literary dallying."

For fans of the Willing series in particular and vintage mystery in general, there are additional pleasures.  Although Basil's wife Gisela does not play too great a role in the book, her presence is welcome as the couple recollects episodes from their past history in the series.  At several points characters make meta observations on mystery fiction, as McCloy looks over the genre from her thirty years' experience within it.  This comment won't be appreciated by fanciers of "Humdrum" detective fiction (about which I literally wrote the book):

" and I should be able to solve this case and find the murderer long before they [the adults] do."

"Oh, Vanya!" Lucinda looked at him with a respect that must have satisfied even his adolescent ego.  "You are wonderful!  How do we go about it?  Will we have to draw up lists of suspects and timetables and all that sort of thing?"

"Certainly not!" said Vanya.  "That's the part I always skip in detective stories.  The really good ones don't even put it in."

The spirit of Freeman Wills Crofts would not have been pleased.  But he was a nice guy so he would probably have let it pass.  As an orthodox Christian I don't know that he would have believed in spiritualism anyway.  But even old, timetable-loving Freeman devised a few locked rooms and I think he would like the one in Mr. Splitfoot.

McCloy does seem to bobble the timeline, but it is not really an important matter.  As near as I can figure out, the sisters Clotho, Atropos and Lachesis would have been born around 1850, so when David Crowe announces that one of the sisters is still alive in her nineties, this does not add up, since the novel is clearly set in the late Sixties.  Atropos would have to be nearly 120.  Elsewhere it's stated that she has died.  I almost wondered whether McCloy might have originally written this novel twenty years earlier and not published it for some reason, later substantially expanding and updating it. 

After all, 1948 would have been the one hundredth anniversary of the advent of the remarkable spirit rapping at the house at Hydesville, how appropriate it would have been for Mr. Splitfoot to make its appearance then.  Two decades later the novel seemed like an anachronism in crime fiction (McCloy herself had been writing suspense novels for the last decade.)  However, it is a most charming one indeed, a perfect read for a lonely winter's night--though when I reread it I was sitting outside in a deck chair on an eighty degree late September day.  That worked too, actually!

Note: this novel has been reviewed quite a bit my vintage mystery bloggers in the last decade.  I will try to post links later.